Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice,
Be not dishearten’d, affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet,
Those who love each other shall become invincible […]
(Were you looking to be held together by lawyers?
Or by agreement on a paper? Or by arms?
Nay, nor the world, nor any living thing, will so cohere.)
— Walt Whitman, Drum-Taps
As a conservative of sorts, I have often envied my liberal friends one thing. I don’t mean the universities, or the media, or whatever other institutions populate the pandemonium of conservative grudges. These are all finite advantages, and so liabilities, inasmuch as they throw shortcomings into special relief. (Being an underdog has backseat thrills of its own.) No, there is one thing that I have envied cleanly and wholeheartedly, because I aspire to it. I mean hope. This may sound odd. Hope is supposed to spring eternal, after all; it is the thing that gets us out of bed, our consolation prize for opening Pandora’s box. Even those marching into Dante’s hell need a dire reminder to abandon it once and for all. Life is hope. But here I mean something more or less specific to our political situation—the expectation that the state of our Union is still sound, that the freedoms to which our nation is promised are bound to be richer and more perfect, that our world is basically working to renew itself as it should, that the next generation may do credit to the last, that our children will lead full lives that will be better than our own.
I do not yet mean to give these things particular content. I am speaking of the undefined sense that things, if not right, may yet be righted, that our prospects for life and action are bright and brave ones, with room enough to grow them better. It is in this sense that it has been characteristic of my liberal friends to speak as if the best is yet to come. It seems to me, on the other hand, that most of my conservative friends think in their heart of hearts that the country and world are going Nowhere Good in some contraption more sinister than a hand basket, that our culture is demoralized and degenerating, that technological progress is corroding our fundamental institutions, and that we are losing touch with what is most valuable about our country. This is an anecdotal generalization, and it may be that the recent election has converted many liberals to new hopelessness, while some conservatives are perhaps more optimistic than usual. But beyond recent circumstance, it should give us pause when one side runs on “Yes, We Can,” while the other runs, if not on fear (as the stock accusation goes), then frequently on a view of how things were and should have remained. It is the “Again” in the president’s slogan that, so long as it is understood as pointing back to the past, troubles me.
Much of what is called hope on the liberal side is no doubt demagogic sloganeering, beery boosting, whistling in the dark, playing while it sinks, fiddling while it burns, and all the other things that may be said about it in front of the home team. Whatever its integrity, however, there is clear problem, rhetorically and philosophically, so long as the “yeses” and “forward” progressions are all on one side, while the other is supposed to stand athwart history yelling stop! (Or: back!) I realize that William F. Buckley’s formulation takes aim at a blithely triumphalist view of historical progress, at the whiggish eschatology that often colors liberal thinking. But to the extent that our clearest picture of what the future should be lies in what the past was, so long as conservative politics is motivated by melancholy admiration for the Fifties (or for the pre-industrial hamlet, or for whenever the Fall is supposed to have taken place), by wistful regret for real or invented yesterdays, by a sort of auld lanxiety, then we are committed to something that is—in the long run—a (rightly) losing position, as well as a nauseous spiritual predicament.
Nostalgia is not an uncomplicated sentiment. It has always been tempting to think that things were once better than they are: one has a good laugh at Nestor’s expense for lamenting the loss of the good old days, with Achilles and Odysseus standing next to him. The past always seems safer somehow—we know how the tale turns out, and that we have lived to tell it—and so it will always look better than the brute and dumb entropy of the present. (Memory may have a narcotic effect.) It is also true that the pace of technological change has accelerated to breakneck over the past few generations, that there have been decisive shifts in demography and mores, and that the country has become increasingly diverse and fragmented, such that many older people I know do not recognize the contemporary world as bearing any resemblance at all to the one they grew up to know. A dear teacher told me in all honesty that he had decided to retire because he no longer felt that he could meaningfully share the shape of his students’ concerns. There is, finally, the more particular sense that our country was once coherent within and powerful without as it no longer is; the sense that played a prominent role for a large constituency in our recent election. I don’t mean to weigh in on the reasons why this may or may not be possible, except to say that missing a general aura of undisputed postwar superiority does not yet seem to me to amount to a political program, let alone a conservative one. If the progressive temptation is to boredom—to change for change’s sake—the conservative one is to be paralyzed by barren railing and backward-glancing regret that things are no longer what they were.
The opposition of prospective to retrospective politics has a specific inflection within modernity. There is something new in Machiavelli’s, Hobbes’s and Locke’s incitement to political transformation and renewed foundation—a clean break from the past, a call to action that has no continuous relation to the current order, a radical idealism that, by virtue of supposing itself grounded in pure reason, has no experience of its own success. (The word utopia means “nowhere.”) The weight accorded to reason as such in the American, French and Russian revolutions is distinctively modern in its universality and scope—they are political projects framed and marshaled within appeals to something wider than the historical bonds of place and kinship. (I do not otherwise insist on their similarities.) Modern politics turns on dislocated ideas and universal reasons as such, in a way otherwise unparalleled in the ledger of human affairs. And once breaking from traditional forms of life acquires prestige of its own, then caution and adherence to established things may be found as its counterpoint. Modern progressive politics has been and will continue to be revolutionary (in the sense of defining itself against some existing order that must be upset for justice to prevail) so long as it defines itself purely in terms of universally true reasons and rights, while conservative politics must continue to insist on the value of what is specifically possible and good by virtue of belonging to a tradition of concerns, a canon of achievements, a single running legend of names and lands. In America this contrast is especially sharp because it is harder than usual to identify the historical particularity of our regime as grounding its legitimacy. Progressive politics will insist on the fact that our truths are self-evident, regardless of their communal context, whereas the conservative response has often been to press the point that it is not just anyone, but we, this people, the subject of the sentence, who stand as the particular witnesses and guarantors of that ideal.
In these very general terms, such a counterpoint is necessary and good. But I am worried that this relationship of compensations is getting out of whack. Where one side will lunge crazily ahead, then stubborn obstruction is the natural response. Or: where one side is stagnant in complacent inertia, the other may reasonably decide that the only way to live is to set the whole thing on fire. This is another way of saying that healthy progressions may only be made in continuity with settled gains, while healthy conservation is only possible with the acknowledgement that only what is living (in the deepest sense) should be conserved. And this is what troubles me sometimes about my conservative friends and myself, in some moods: not that we love the past, but that we cling to it, that we feel ourselves dragged along against our will into a questionable future from which nothing good could come. In the dourest cases I have in mind, I detect even a kind of giddy glee in the thought that it is all going to the dogs. “DON’T VOTE: WE’RE DOOMED” scowls a bumper sticker on a colleague’s car—as if political apocalypse could be worth the delicious tingle of an I-told-you-so.
It is a terrible truth that nations age and decay, that political organisms have a certain life span, and that no state can last forever. Within every nation, as in any animal, there are forces of deterioration and regeneration simultaneously at work, and decay results when a nation fails either to regenerate itself or to assimilate that renewal into continuity with what it is. Chesterton makes the point by saying that there is a problem with conservatism so long as it understands “conservation” as keeping things the same: just as a fence post does not remain white except by constantly attending to it, no political form will remain healthy if it is simply left to itself. Life is on the move; only dead things lie still. The conservative appeal to the past should not therefore be for the purpose of idly clucking at the present, but we should remind ourselves that the past is of no use, strictly, except as a means of responding to the present for the future. It should not reject, but project. It should aim to reform, not restore. (The Washington Monument is a beautiful emblem of this—it is a single form, built from two different shades of marble: the mottled marvel of America.) “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” and to have a vision is to hold the truth before you.
Hope is a virtue of youth especially; I would think that it is therefore a sign of healthy conservatism to be loved by youth. The young will always tend to gravitate toward more liberal views (they are not yet tutored by past failures), while age tends to moderate us (maturity has a more accurate, if diminished, view of what is possible). These too are complementary aspects of healthy political life. But this also means that conservatives must be vigilant of our bent to settle and mindful of our need to find renewal in the wild hopes of youth. There are of course many young, hopefully public-spirited conservatives now. But it is also true that the young conservative often cuts a somewhat bizarre figure—a curiosity in the campus ecosystem, clothed in bowtie anachronism and khaki conceit, who relishes his contrarian status. I am not suggesting that conservatism should strive to become appealing to youth (the easy glamour of such appeals being invariably pathetic). I am suggesting that it ought not to regard itself as a way of sighing after lovely bygones, but as aspiring to positive, clear goods that are too often either delegated to another party or overlooked by both. Burke is a dangerous example for us in this regard; he tempts one to gorgeous despair. Tocqueville is the better teacher, because he shows us how to make the best of our age and how to make our age the best, even where we are inclined to dislike aspects of it.
Our task is to envision a future that is better than any past. We must look forward to make good. I would hope the conservative vision should at least entail: (1) the personal (not merely legal) care for the least among us (the unborn, the poor, the outcast, the imprisoned, and refugees); (2) the active availing ourselves of communal, local intelligence (where it still exists) in preference to government action, in spite of the apparently greater efficiency of the latter; (3) the principled insistence on the conservation and stewardship of the environment; (4) an emphasis on American precedent and tradition as a set of inherited responsibilities guiding political insight; and (5) a devotion to the spiritual dimension that underlies the context of American principles (by which I mean as much the liberal arts as religion), to the sense that the safety and care of the body are important but limited goods, and to the acknowledgement that it is not the state that will or can ultimately grant us recognition in the truest sense, but that we are each called to recognize each other as American citizens, as free men and women, and as children of God.
In other words: if conservatives are wary of government intervention, it cannot be because we imagine that “trial by market” will solve every social ill (as if there were natural affinities between wealth and worth), or because we think that government can undertake to “make” America anything that we do not, or fix things while we sit idly by, but because we should fear passivity and indifference as the greatest threats to our regime, and we think that to the extent that responsibility is surrendered to bureaucratic processes, we are weakened and isolated as citizens. The point of smaller government cannot be absence of constraint, but is rather an invitation for each of us to work harder and harder at the manifold tasks of good citizenship. The burden of proof for this possibility lies heavier on us, as conservatives, since it is we who claim that communities have the power to rectify their own faults, without formal directives from the center.
We have come to demand more and more from politics over the past decades. I do not say that no good has come from a more powerful, central government, but that it has gone hand in hand with an undeniable deterioration of the texture of civil society. There has been a corresponding inflation of political promises to the point where it becomes impossible to distinguish sincere intention from bloated lie, legitimate authority from arbitrary power. But we deserve our own rulers; it is not government that is bad, it is we who have become addicted to it.
This is another way of saying that what is peculiar about our contemporary politics is that political change cannot be only institutional or large-scale, but must also be personal and communal. The specific evil of our times is that we do not know each other, and we accordingly tend to think of our relations to each other as mediated through central authority. We would prefer not to bother ourselves, and to leave the inefficient, backbreaking, frankly tedious, work of governance to others. Or insofar as we participate in public service, we increasingly understand the struggle (over social issues in particular) as a struggle to enforce our views. The stakes seem so high that we have come to think of the goal of politics as “winning,” rather than winning over. But the enforcement of our views cannot but be coercive so long as we do not also persuade others that we are right. To the extent that we understand our pursuit of happiness exclusively in terms of what the state may do on our behalf, we have already failed. Neither states nor institutions can, strictly speaking, exercise care for us; only the work of each and all in common can do that.
Hope is barren when it does not shape our acts, when it ceases to be effective, when it no longer has a life in practice. We should not hope for more than we are willing to work for. If hope is the means by which we weave concrete acts into the larger vision that sustains them, then we can only ever begin with where we are. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by renewing your mind.” I suggest the following not because I am in any position to preach, but because I see something lacking in my own life, and I would be a better citizen in 2017. It is not given to most of us to change the world, but we may earn a change of heart through service.
Let us get to know our neighbors better—I mean the people who happen to live next to us. Associating only with those whom we voluntarily seek out degrades our political life. Let us volunteer to serve others in some way. We should volunteer especially—I’d suggest—for work that places us in personal, face-to-face contact with those we take ourselves to be working with or for. Let us educate ourselves better about the food we eat and the waste we produce; it is not always cheap, but this can be a not insignificant way of encouraging an economy of local responsibility. Let us find someone who voted for the other candidate, and love them for it. I do not mean that we should empathize with them, or see that we might have done the same in their own benighted position—these are forms of condescension. But there is and can be no perfect political position, only more or less adequate ones: we should therefore honor the fact that we live in a regime that is meant to thrive on principled disagreement. Let us spend a day a week offline. The internet is a medium that makes the fact of agreement or disagreement more important than the shades of persuasion, deliberation and compromise that underlie the possibility of national courtesy. A cyber-Sabbath can help us keep in view the fact that the substance of our political activity cannot and should not take place online. Let us, finally, make a special point of observing the civic traditions of our nation. Day to day politics should not prevent us from observing our fundamental solidarity by reading the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July, or Lincoln’s Thanksgiving text, or watching Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech in mid-January. Part of what is admirable about the latter is that his vision of freedom is not a vision of the prerogatives demanded by one interest group; it is founded in a vision of the freedom to which all Americans should collectively aspire. We would do well to reclaim that example, and to remember the ways in which the past places specific demands on us. Our country is as much what it has been as what it ought to be.
It is a deep truth that we may never return to how things were. I take this to be the case not simply in the ordinary sense that history does not exactly repeat itself, but also in the sense that experience changes us, that the expression of certain possibilities permanently alters the ways in which we envision our own prospects of action. This is Nietzsche’s point, when he whispers in the conservative’s ear: “There are parties even today that dream about a world of crabs, where everything walks backwards. But no one is free to be a crab. It is no use: we have to go forwards.” Human acts have a life of their own: what’s done is done, and our deeds become our permanent companions thereafter, they govern all future choices more vividly than any unrealized possibility. That something has been done makes it much more likely that it will be done again. This is what it means for man to be a historical creature: that his task is time, and time is where he finds himself.
It is also in this sense that hope is by no means the same as optimism or confidence, but a deeper commitment to the world’s good as it unspools out beyond us. Mere optimism is based on a prudent calculus of likelihood and happenstance—it is easily discouraged—whereas hope is the purity of heart by which we may envision and do good once more afresh. (It is in this sense that it is a theological virtue for Christians: not something that we have by our own merits, strictly, but a gift.) There is a crucial sense in which hope does not belong to us, because it is the way in which we ourselves are promised to the future. Hope is the power by which the future is loved forth; it is the virtue of making our time valuable by valuing it.
And if this is so, then every stripe of despair—cynicism, resentment, melancholy, declensionist resignation, and anything that balks or mortifies our hope—is a blasphemy. There are two ways of asking that something take place “again”: there is the nostalgic desire to rerun the past, which is at bottom the sin of desiring to be someone other than yourself. And there is the way in which a young child commands it in inventive delight, because every time the same book is read or the same game is played, it is never just what it has been. The repetitions of a healthy world are the revelations of a child’s play in wonder and amaze. We can be sure that a very different country is on its way. The question is: will we recognize ourselves in it? This is the best time because it is the only living time, and God is the living God. Stay awake. Take heart. Our morning vision is afoot and stands a chance in us alone.
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